By Mark Lehman
Recently I began the laborious and sentimental task of dismantling my parent’s homestead; also my childhood home. As I worked my way through old dusty boxes found tucked away in closets and under beds, I made numerous unique discoveries about my family’s journey to the 21stCentury. Most of these discoveries were contained in several shoe boxes stuffed with letters dating back to 1887.
These letters painted a vivid and first-hand account of my family heritage, and through these writings I began to see my legacy and the almost overwhelming responsibility to preserve the historical accuracy of our family history. One letter dated April 1919, and written in German, articulated how an entire village celebrated the news that my great aunt and uncle had purchased property in Texas. The writer, which I assume was my great great aunt, was ecstatic when she wrote, “None of us could have ever believed a member of our family would ever get to own property again. While I miss you terribly, you made the right decision to immigrate.”
I also learned about 3 descendants killed while fighting Nazism in WWII. Before discovering this letter I had some vague awareness of the ultimate sacrifice made by two relatives in the US Army, and I now know one of my German ancestors was killed while working with the resistance movement in Heidelberg, Germany.
I read how our family ultimately rallied to support our first interracial marriage in 1951, and how relatives survived the Galveston Hurricane of 1900. I discovered two family members fled to Canada avoiding the draft during the Vietnam era, and that my grandfather proudly purchased the very first Edsel automobile sold in San Antonio, Texas. (I bet he wished that letter, and accompanying photo, had not been saved.)
To get a better historical perspective of my family history, I spent an entire night organizing the letters by date. Around sunrise I began to see a disturbing trend emerge. The last letters were dated 1999 as America was in the midst of celebrating 100 years of what was dubbed “the American Century.” We have enjoyed a rich history since that millennial celebration; however, none of our family events are chronicled.
Modern technology has dealt a devastating blow to the art of letter writing. 140 character tweets, insignificant Facebook posts, and easily deleted e-mails have compromised this art. As a result, we could lose very important generational history which has made the American family the cornerstone of our democracy.
Look no further than the Holy Bible to see the historical impact of written letters. Almost a third of the New Testament is a compilation of letters written by the Apostle Paul to fledgling new churches in places like Corinth, Thessalonica, and Ephesus. There is no doubt the New Testament would have been much shorter and less impactful if the Apostle Paul would have simply tweeted his messages to the likes of Timothy, Luke, James and John
Social communication networks are not going away, and all of us enjoy using these venues to keep up with friends and family, send invitations to happy hours, and forward trivial jokes. However, preserving our history requires a much stronger commitment to the written word. None of us should overlook the generational responsibility of writing and sharing our own histories in diaries, journals, and those all-important letters. These preserved written words are the foundations of any great society, religious movement, or family history.